For a critically acclaimed novelist who has just received the worst notices of her career, A.M. Homes seems remarkably unfazed. Dressed in shapeless black pants, gray sneakers, garish red socks and a Fred Segal shirt emblazoned with images of Santa Monica lifeguard stations, she bears only a wan resemblance to the photograph of the sultry seductress that adorns the inside flap of her new book. Though she inhabits one of the most picturesque sections of New York’s Greenwich Village, she claims to spend most of her time inside her apartment and, once there, inside her own busy head. In earlier works such as The End of Alice, The Safety of Objects and Jack, she has tackled murderous pedophiles, fathers who discover they’re gay, despairing couples and young men who fall for their sisters’ Barbie dolls. More recently, she has written for Showtime’s lesbian lifestyle drama, The L Word, and, if nothing else, she appreciated the health insurance. (Not something novelists qualify for, she notes.) In person, she is friendly and talkative, and appears simultaneously spacy and hyperefficient. Now in her mid-40s, she could pass for a cheery, lightly freckled aunt who neglects to wear makeup but might slip you a marijuana-laced cookie with a wink and a smile.
A brash, primary-colored saga of life in Los Angeles uneasily poised between satire and New Age sincerity, This Book Will Save Your Life is a marked change from the sexually transgressive stories Homes made her name with in the 1990s. Critics have dismissed it as a clichéd retread of the apocalyptic school of Los Angeles fiction, complete with the usual fires, mudslides and catastrophic upheavals caused by Mother Nature and an overreliance on the iconic fiction of Nathanael West. Homes has also been accused of peopling the novel with too many bubblegum cute, movie-ready characters. (The film rights have been sold and one does tend to mentally “cast” the roles as one reads along.) TheWashington Post dubbed the book “Apocalypse Lite,” and the Rocky Mountain News advised, “Save Yourself: Avoid this Tale of Midlife Crisis.” Most damning of all — for a resident of the West Village, anyway — Walter Kirn dismissed the novel’s climax as a “creaky, studio-system apocalypse” in The New York Times.At the venerable, gay-friendly Three Lives bookstore, a few blocks from the Italian restaurant where we meet, Homes’ previous books are all in stock, but there’s only one copy of her newest opus. Tucked discreetly in a corner of the “New Fiction” section, it looks as if it’s in hiding.
A city that tends either to entrance or repel outsiders, L.A. is understandably sensitive about how it’s perceived — particularly on the East Coast. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Samantha Dunn accused Homes of trading in a “comic book” version of L.A., and likened the novel to an “inside joke for former New Yorkers who used to live between West 66th and 86th streets and L.A. Westsiders who rarely travel east of the 405 freeway — except to go to Century City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood or downtown.”
Yet Homes can hardly be accused of not being deeply interested in the metropolis she has chosen to write about, or at least a certain side of it. A few years ago, National Geographic offered to send her anywhere in the world to write a travel book. The editors probably anticipated a fashionably masochistic response such as Beirut or Uzbekistan. Instead, Homes asked to be put up at the Chateau Marmont, so long as she didn’t have to stay in one of its bungalows. (She’s scared of bungalows, never mind war zones.) She recalls once sharing the swimming pool with only two other people: Matthew McConaughey and Geoffrey Rush. Between the chiseled extravagance of the former and amorphous outline of the latter, she says she felt perfectly at ease. The book that resulted was called Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill. In conversation she describes Los Angeles as “surreal,” “a difficult city to be connected in,” “the last of the wild West,” a place “that tolerates a lot of eccentricity, from the personal to the architectural” and “where the American Dream is still thriving.” She wants to write more about it. As for all the reproofs about the nature-induced apocalypse that ends her novel, not to mention a saber-toothed tiger that roams the Hollywood Hills and a pack of feral dogs that attack shoppers on Rodeo Drive, she says her idea of relaxation is to watch hurricanes on the Weather Channel or read a book with a title like The History of the Black Hole. In other words, she’s into this stuff.
The novel’s hero is Richard Nathan Novak (or Richard Nathan Nobody, as he thinks of himself in a memorably bitter moment), a wealthy, 50-something day trader who lives in near-total isolation in a glass box high in the Hollywood Hills. He has loyal attendants (maid, trainer, nutritionist), but no friends. His ex-wife, teenage son and older brother, virtual strangers, all live on the East Coast. Though his house is silent as a crypt, he is rarely without his noise-canceling headphones. The highlight of his mornings comes when, pacing on his treadmill while monitoring stocks on his laptop, he watches an unknown woman swim laps in a pool down the hill. She is the closest thing he has to a muse, but there is no poetry, or even purpose, to his life. He has not left his home in weeks, and doesn’t even realize it.
Out of nowhere, a savage, body-ravaging pain — it appears to be a heart attack — gets him outside and down the hill to Cedars-Sinai in a hurry. But the infarction proves psychosomatic, and Novak is released from the emergency room at 4 a.m. On the way home, he stops in an all-night doughnut shop run by Anhil, a chirpy East Indian immigrant who lovingly crafts his own doughnuts and observes that “Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don’t have any of their own.”
Novak, it turns out, is about to embark on such a journey himself. The book may not save readers’ lives, but it definitely rescues its protagonist’s, as Novak discovers himself by discovering — and helping — other people. He befriends a weeping housewife in the aisle of a supermarket, rescues a kidnapped girl in a wildly improbable scene on the freeway, makes the acquaintance of a glamorous Hollywood actor, and becomes fast friends with a scruffy Malibu eccentric who turns out to be a reclusive novelist of Salinger-esque status. In between learning to meditate during a weeklong retreat, he renews contact with his brother, finally bonds with his angry, disaffected son, and ends years of celibacy in an ecstatic bout of lovemaking with his single-breasted gyrotonics instructor. He also showers everyone he meets with expensive gifts. Given his seemingly unlimited bank account, such a path to instant friendship and goodwill is apt to produce sneers from readers — not to mention reviewers — unequipped with an arsenal of platinum credit cards.
Homes says that she wanted to write about someone “who has everything and has nothing” and about the way money affects the way people live. She is insistent that the novel is not a send-up of a spiritual journey, even if it contains absurdist satirical elements in the Kurt Vonnegut mode. “I do believe that people can be effective in other people’s lives, and that it’s often easier to do something for other people than for yourself,” she says, ratifying her hero’s journey.
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As for the novel’s bright, feel-good atmosphere — less American Psycho than American Softie — it’s a definite reversal for a writer known for her exploration of dark, disturbing themes in the mode of Bret Easton Ellis and Dennis Cooper. (Of The End of Alice, a novel Homes published in 1996, Rebecca Mead wrote in New York, “There’s incest, homosexual rape, sex with minors of both genders — and those are just the perversions you’ve heard of before.”) If Homes has now turned her back on such ’90s-style transgression — though traces linger in Novak’s relationship with his son — she refuses to disavow the transformation.
“In this country now, frankly I could use a little uplift,” she says, sweeping back her auburn hair. “It’s a disassociative time. The government isn’t doing its best for the people, but we’re powerless to do anything about it. I think there are a lot of Richard Novaks out there.”
If this seems a bit of a stretch, it’s because the Novak we meet at the beginning of the novel is far too removed from daily life to care about who happens to be in power in Washington. This Book Will Save Your Life is a fantasy of connectedness and hope and love greased by the kind of money few of us have, a lubricant that Homes documents but only cursorily examines. She has written a novel about L.A. that smacks of Hollywood, a movie in prose, a guilty pleasure that gives solipsism the boot. (You could see Steve Martin playing Novak, but otherwise it’s the anti-Shopgirl.) The novel’s most troubling weakness is its overall uncertainty of tone. Line by line, it’s expertly handled, but Homes’ decision to counter a tale of spiritual renewal with a landscape of geographic apocalypse ultimately feels like a cop-out. The real obstacles to self-transformation remain internal, and no amount of conflagrations and mudslides can disguise that stubborn fact.
THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE | By A.M. HOMES | Viking | 372 pages | $25 hardcover